From WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #785, 24 April 2014
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US NRC issues uranium license on Lakota Indian land
On April 8, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an operating license to the Powertech Uranium Corp for its proposed in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mine in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The move came four months ahead of a public hearing scheduled to hear from opponents of the project. The proposed mine still needs final approval from the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment, the South Dakota Water Management Board, and the US Environmental Protection Agency before it can began operations.
At least eight other uranium companies are known to be targeting the Black Hills. Lilias Jarding of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance told The Ecologist: "We're afraid that if this project goes through ... we'll end up with a ring of uranium mines around the Black Hills.
Activists say that Powertech is working to minimise oversight of its operations. In 2011, Powertech secured the passage of legislation effectively barring South Dakota's Department of Environment and Natural Resources from regulating ISL projects, leaving the state with direct oversight only of water-use and waste-disposal issues. The company has also defeated several measures aimed at increasing oversight, including, a bill that would have required Powertech to demonstrate its ability to restore groundwater quality before opening the new mine.
Over a period of two decades beginning in the early 1950s, about a thousand open-cut uranium mines were opened in and around the Black Hills region. The last mine closed in 1973, but the region remains littered with radioactive debris.
He Sapa, the Black Hills, is a sacred site to the Lakota and numerous other Western Tribes who have long gone to the area for ceremony, hunting game, harvesting medicines and for spiritual renewal. Despite the 1980 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Sioux Nation, that ruled the US illegally stole the Black Hills from the Lakota, the government has refused to return the lands to the Lakota and it remains a continued central source of conflict between the Lakota and the U.S. government.
The proposed uranium mine is opposed by Indian groups, ranchers, environmentalists and the Rapid City Council. Debra White Plume, an Oglala Lakota activist, said: "We're all standing together. This ain't just a handful of little Indians out on the prairies that you can run over ... this is a broad array of resistance to uranium mining. If they close every door to us, then the only door open to us is direct action. You've got to walk through that door if you're serious about protecting yourself and Mother Earth."
Lakota activists fought off a similar uranium-mining project in 2007, and Debra White Plume says she's determined to see off Powertech.
Protecting against insider nuclear threats
Matthew Bunn and Scott Sagan have written a useful paper on insider nuclear threats − 'A Worst Practices Guide to Insider Threats: Lessons from Past Mistakes'. The paper is part of a larger project on insider threats under the Global Nuclear Future project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A recent example was the apparent insider sabotage of a diesel generator at the San Onofre nuclear plant in the United States in 2012; the most spectacular was a 1982 incident in which an insider placed explosives directly on the steel pressure vessel head of a nuclear reactor in South Africa and detonated them − thankfully the plant had yet to begin operating. All known thefts of plutonium or highly enriched uranium appear to have been perpetrated by insiders or with the help of insiders. Similarly, most of the sabotage incidents that have occurred at nuclear facilities were perpetrated by insiders.
Bunn and Sagan look at past disasters caused by insiders and draw from them 10 lessons about what not to do. The lessons are as follows:
#1: Don't assume that serious insider problems are NIMO (Not In My Organization)
#2: Don't assume that background checks will solve the insider problem
#3: Don't assume that red flags will be read properly
#4: Don't assume that insider conspiracies are impossible
#5: Don't rely on single protection measures
#6: Don't assume that organizational culture and employee disgruntlement don't matter
#7: Don't forget that insiders may know about security measures and how to work around them
#8: Don't assume that security rules are followed
#9: Don't assume that only consciously malicious insider actions matter
#10: Don't focus only on prevention and miss opportunities for mitigation
Matthew Bunn and Scott Sagan, April 2014, 'A Worst Practices Guide to Insider Threats: Lessons from Past Mistakes', Occasional Paper, American Academy of Arts & Sciences,
Small reactor prospects diminishing
World Nuclear News reported on April 14 that Babcock & Wilcox will slash its spending on the 'mPower' small modular reactor project, having failed to find customers or investors. B&W's mPower design was prioritised for deployment under a five-year cost-matching agreement with the US Department of Energy (DoE), and with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) named as the lead customer. The three of them supplied a budget of US$150 million [€109m] per year to develop mPower, hoping to build the first unit by 2022. Six units had been pencilled in for TVA's Clinch River site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
With the DoE arrangement now one year old, B&W hoped to have secured a number of utility customers for the small reactor as well as investors keen to take a majority share in its development. Spokesperson Aimee Mills said: "There was interest from customers and interest from investors, but none have signed on the dotted line." B&W President E. James Ferland said: "While we have made notable progress in developing a world-class technology, there is still significant work involved in bringing this climate-friendly technology to reality."
B&W has decided to reduce its spending on mPower to a maximum of US$15 million [€10.9m] per year and has begun negotiating with TVA and the DoE to find a workable way to restructure and continue the project.
POWER Magazine notes that "air seems to be leaking out of the SMR balloon lately." In February, Westinghouse announced it would end its 225 MWe Small Modular Reactor project, after a decade of development and many millions of dollars of investment. Westinghouse failed to secure R&D funding from the DoE. CEO Danny Roderick said" "The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it's not the deployment − it's that there's no customers."
In the US, DoE-subsidised R&D continues into the 45 MWe NuScale reactor concept. Elsewhere in the world, construction is underway on the 27 MWe CAREM reactor in Argentina, though claims that small reactors will reduce costs are looking increasingly fanciful − the CAREM reactor equates to US$17.84 billion (€13.0 billion) per 1000 MWe. Work continues on two 105 MWe HTR units at Shidaowan in China; and in Russia, plans are in train for a floating nuclear power plant with two 35 MWe reactors mounted on a barge.
Rio Tinto under fire
The Labour Resource and Research Institute and Earthlife Namibia have released a report on the health of workers at Rio Tinto's Rössing uranium mine in Namibia.1 The report was produced as part of the project Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade (www.ejolt.org). The study is based on 44 questionnaires carried out with current and former mine workers. The recommendations are:
* Rio Tinto should perform a large-scale epidemiology study with independent medical experts to examine those workers who started working in the 1970s or early 1980s.
* The Ministry of Health and Social Services must get unrestricted access to all medical reports of all workers employed by Rössing.
* All mine workers should be able to have access to their own medical reports.
Historically, the Rössing mine supplied uranium for US and UK nuclear weapons. Workers faced dangerous conditions, poor regulations, and high levels of dust. During the early years of operation, Rössing operated with a migrant labor system which the International Commission of Jurists declared illegal and said was similar to slavery.
The Rössing mine was in the news last year because of the December 3 collapse of one of the 12 leach tanks in the mine's processing plant. Just days later, a similar spill occurred at Rio Tinto's Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory of Australia.
The company is also being criticised for failing to guarantee the rehabilitation of Ranger unless its plans to expand operations at the site are approved. The latest annual report of Energy Resources of Australia (majority owned by Rio Tinto) states that "... if the Ranger 3 Deeps mine is not developed, in the absence of any other successful development, ERA may require an additional source of funding to fully fund the rehabilitation of the Ranger Project Area."2 And at Rio Tinto's London AGM on April 15, executive Sam Walsh distanced the parent company from responsibility for rehabilitation, saying: "This is a public Australian company and clearly that is an issue for them."
Justin O'Brien from the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Mirarr Traditional Owners, said: "The attitude of Rio and ERA demonstrates little has changed in the more than three decades since Galarrwuy Yunupingu described talks over the Ranger mine as 'like negotiating with a gun to my head'. The mining giants have made enormous profits at the expense of Mirarr traditional lands and are now holding the Word Heritage listed area to ransom. It is inconceivably thoughtless and arrogant of any mining company to manage its corporate social responsibilities in this way and regrettably brings to mind the comment made by Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula in 2003: 'The promises never last, but the problems always do'."2
Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation said: "Only hours after the complete collapse of the tank ERA − owned by the UK based mining giant Rio Tinto − released a statement high on bravado but low on evidence claiming all contaminants had been contained and that 'there is no impact to the environment'. This predictable and premature assurance highlighted ERA's desire to at least retain control over its perception, if not its pollution. A subsequent site review commissioned by ERA recently confirmed the long held concerns of many stakeholders that the aging plant is at full stretch and raised serious questions about the adequacy of both infrastructure and management systems at Ranger, finding that the mine had 35 other failed or at risk pieces of critical plant infrastructure or equipment with the potential for major human safety or environmental impacts in operation at the time of the tank collapse. The report recommended that processing not resume processing until these items have been repaired or retired while a further 48 critical assets were recommended to be serviced, repaired or retired within 6-12 months of any future plant restart."3
On the day of the London AGM, IndustriALL Global Union released a report, 'Unsustainable: The Ugly Truth about Rio Tinto', highlighting the multinational's global practices.4 The report exposes Rio Tinto's poor performance in relation to environmental, economic, social and governance issues. Workers from numerous countries staged a protest outside the AGM. Kemal Özkan, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL, said: "Rio Tinto's blind pursuit of profit at any cost has caused disputes with numerous unions as well as environmental, community and indigenous groups. IndustriALL has launched a campaign working with civil society organizations to defend against Rio Tinto's abuses. Through demonstrating that Rio Tinto does not operate in a sustainable manner, we aim to force the company to live by its own claims."4
1. Bertchen Kohrs and Patrick Kafuka, April 2014, 'Study on low-level radiation of Rio Tinto's Rössing Uranium mine workers',
Eroding nuclear safeguards
The April 16 edition of Canada's 'Embassy' newspaper discusses the gradual erosion of safeguards requirements associated with uranium exports.1 Previously, Canada required that nuclear material exported to China could only be held in facilities in China named in a 'Voluntary Offer' list that Beijing had agreed to with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such facilities can be inspected by the IAEA − albeit the case that IAEA inspections in nuclear weapons states are few and far between.
Under Canada's revised policy, uranium oxide can be (and has been) exported to a conversion plant in China that has not been placed on the Voluntary Offer list. Instead, if material is transferred to a facility that is not on the IAEA list, an "administrative arrangement" kicks in, requiring China to "provide additional reporting to Canada on the uranium." But the administrative arrangement, and others like it, "are considered protected documents and are not available publicly" according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
Shawn-Patrick Stensil from Greenpeace Canada drew a parallel with Canada's nuclear exports to India: "We've now been moving to selling uranium to markets that have bomb programs, and our non-proliferation policy is dying a death by a thousand cuts. I think this will eventually come back to bite us."
Reuters reported on April 14 that the US, UK, Czech Republic and the Netherlands submitted a paper to a meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) calling on the NSG − a voluntary, 48-country group − to relax its rules to allow nuclear exports to countries such as Israel.2 The paper, seen by Reuters, is a masterpiece of obfuscation. Instead of talking about nuclear exports (to a nuclear weapons state outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), it talks about "facilitated export arrangements".
And this is the indecipherable rationale for weakening nuclear export norms: "With technology progressing at an ever increasing rate, globalised supply chains, and more and more countries developing nuclear and dual use capabilities, the possibility of trade in nuclear related goods between governments not participating in the NSG is becoming more and more likely. ... In order to stay ahead of the curve, the NSG's goals − to control the export of nuclear sensitive goods − might be best served by an open-minded approach aimed at cooperation with non-NSG members and promoting transparency of the NSG guidelines."
A former Israeli nuclear official told Reuters that Israel for years had tried to get the NSG to recognise it as a so-called adherent country "on the strength of the justified truth that Israel is a responsible state", but a number of NSG member states have objected.
There is an ongoing push from the US, UK and others to include India as a member of the NSG. India was granted a "clean waiver" by the NSG in 2008, an important step towards opening up nuclear trade despite India's status as a rogue nuclear weapons states that refuses to sign the NPT or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and is expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Islamabad is also lobbying to be included in the NSG and for an end to prohibitions on nuclear trade with Pakistan.3 China is already using the US−India precedent to expand nuclear exports to Pakistan.
Kazakhstan nuclear company head arrested for corruption
Valery Shevelyov, the executive director of Kazakhstan's major uranium producer and nuclear-fuel cycle operator KazAtomProm, was arrested on April 1 on corruption charges. An investigation regarding the construction of new KazAtomProm facilities named Shevelyov as a suspect in the embezzling US$710 million [€514m], according to Kazakh State Anti-corruption Agency. Shevelyov's predecessor Muhtar Dzhakishev has been in prison since 2009 on similar charges.
European Parliament calls for action on depleted uranium
The European Parliament has called on the EU's Council of Ministers to ensure that all member states support an upcoming UN General Assembly resolution on depleted uranium (DU). The resolution will be tabled in October. Each year the European Parliament provides recommendations to the EU's Council of Ministers on positions that EU member states should take during voting. This year the parliament has called on member states to develop a common EU position that better reflects the overwhelming and repeated calls by the parliament for a global moratorium on the weapons.
At present the EU is split on the topic, with DU users the UK and France opposed during UN votes − two of only four states worldwide to oppose the resolutions, along with the US and Israel − while the rest of the EU votes in favour or abstains. While the number of EU states abstaining each time has been decreasing, continued abstentions by the likes of Sweden and Denmark have been a source of frustration for national campaigns. Globally, 155 states supported the most recent UN resolution on DU in 2012, and the split position within the EU is something of an anomaly in the face of an emerging global consensus.
Renewable energy potential in Europe
An analysis for Greenpeace suggests that it is possible to get 77% of Europe's electricity from renewable sources by 2030 with the help of smart grids, demand management, gas backup and big changes in how the power grid works. The model suggests that by taking a European approach (rather than planning by country) and using a (relatively) new type of power cable the cost of integrating new renewables into the grid can be significantly cut. The report suggests that by 2030 Europe's grid will be able to absorb a renewable share of 77% with some countries, such as Spain, getting all their power from renewable sources. The UK would be on 70%. Around half of Europe's power (53%) would come from wind and solar PV panels.